Complete Abandon

My True Love

Total Surrender

Too Hot to Handle
by Cheryl Holt
(St. Martin's Paperbacks, $6.99, NC-17) ISBN 0-312-93797-0
My first foray into Cheryl Holt's erotic romance novels was neither erotic nor romantic.

Holt starts out strong with a solid female protagonist in the form of Emily Barnett, who has fled her rural town to become a governess to Lord Michael Farrow's two wards. Emily, a 26 year-old spinster who is supporting a blind widowed sister and young niece, is seeking a position to keep her family. What she isn't seeking is to become the plaything of an idle heathen!

Lord Farrow knows what the ladies of the demimonde think of him, and frankly he doesn't care. Plagued by his father's insanity, Michael does his best to live down to his reputation. After a falling out with his current mistress, Michael is reduced to interviewing ladies of the town for the position.

It is here, during these interviews the prudish governess to be first meets the rakish lord. Sparks fly as the two attempt to fight their growing attraction. Emily won't be a fallen woman and Michael dare not marry, always fearing he'll end up like his father.

The other Farrow brother, Alex, also worries that he'll succumb to the family madness and manages quite deftly to fend off romantic entanglements. Of course, that is until he meets Emily's sister Mary who cares neither about his disfiguring scar nor about his gruff tongue. These two provide a nice subplot as they struggle to overcome their own struggles and find true love.

The story starts off strong, full of humor, heart and heat. Emily's naiveté is quite amusing as she struggles through her "interview" and the reader is quickly introduced to Michael's libido in a very sexy scene featuring his latest paramour, Amanda. Sadly the sex with Amanda is as hot as the book gets as Holt's sex scenes soon become either brutal or clinical, depending on the characters. I always appreciate a writer being blunt in a sex scene, I must admit I'm not big on euphemisms, but really, there is a line between sexy and crass and sometimes Too Hot to Handle crosses it.

The humor in the story also dissipates quickly as Michael's wards are introduced. The older of the two Pamela is sixteen. Which is strange in and of itself, since Emily is a spinster at twenty-six. One must wonder why a sixteen-year-old is being treated as a child. But, of course, Pamela quickly becomes the villain of the piece as she is clearly after Michael's affections. Her flirting and such becomes vicious and sucks any lightness from the story.

The children themselves are oddly absent from the story. The younger girl is quickly shoved aside with Emily's niece and barely mentioned until her intervention becomes critical to a plot twist. Emily's niece has no personality, none. She is never fleshed out as a character and only appears briefly, despite being in the same house as the main characters. As for Margaret, who is truly the only appealing character in the book, this precocious nine-year old is terribly underused, especially when the story is about the governess.

As a whole, Too Hot to Handle fell short of my expectations. First there was the cover, which looks like a contemporary Western cover, then there was the male protagonist's dismissive attitude of all things female and finally the heroine's own ignorance about her body. I believe the last straw was when I was forced to believe a twenty-six year-old woman would not know how her body was made; or maybe it was when an historical hero mentioned 'screwing' to his brother. I found the language off-putting (in that it seemed anachronistic), the sex to be more disturbing than erotic and the characters to be completely unsympathetic.

If only Ms. Holt could have sustained the the first half of the story, she might have had a four-heart rating. In truth, after reading the first third of this book, I was already composing a glowing review. I should have stopped then.

--Amanda Waters

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